The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Watching Jim Mattis’s slow slide into irrelevance

Lara Seligman is the Pentagon correspondent for Foreign Policy magazine.

This is the memoir America wishes Jim Mattis had written.

Former Navy fighter pilot Guy Snodgrass’s account of his time as Mattis’s speechwriter offers an inside look at one of the most scrutinized relationships in Washington: between President Trump and his first defense secretary, the storied ex-Marine Corps general known for his deep military experience and colorful quotes (“Always carry a knife with you, just in case there’s cheesecake, or you need to stab someone in the throat”). During his nearly two-year tenure at the helm of the Pentagon, Mattis was said to be one of the “adults in the room” protecting the country from Trump’s worst impulses, until he resigned in December 2018.

As a reporter covering the Pentagon during this turbulent time, I was disappointed — though not surprised — to discover that the memoir Mattis actually wrote focused on his 40-plus years in the Marine Corps. In his book, he had no problem excoriating past presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, but Trump’s name appeared only four times in the text — all in the prologue. “I don’t write about sitting presidents,” Mattis said.

In “Holding the Line: Inside Trump’s Pentagon With Secretary Mattis,” Snodgrass cracks the former general’s carefully crafted facade. Full of juicy anecdotes from meetings with the president and key Cabinet members that Snodgrass witnessed, the book reflects Mattis’s growing frustration with an erratic boss who won’t listen to him, and charts his gradual slide into irrelevance. It shows Trump making shockingly crass statements about issues of global importance behind closed doors. “Seriously, who gives a sh-- about Afghanistan?” is just one of dozens of examples that litter the book.

The portrait of Mattis that emerges is one my colleagues and I in the press corps know well: a defense secretary zealously guarding his public image at the expense of the institution he was tasked with leading. Mattis surrounded himself with current and former military officers who frequently overran the department’s career civil servants, eroding the long-held American principle of civilian control of the military. And he disdained the press, directing the military services to limit communications with journalists and encouraging his assistant for public affairs, Dana White, to clamp down on information and access. “Never forget, Bus,” White says, using Snodgrass’s call sign, a nickname given to military aviators. “The press is the enemy.”

The Pentagon press corps felt this chilling effect firsthand. Reporters found planned embeds mysteriously canceled or our names left off the invite lists for important briefings after unflattering coverage. We were frequently booted off trips with Mattis and other senior officials at the last minute. The honest public affairs officers were no longer able to provide us with accurate information; the dishonest ones openly lied. White stopped giving televised briefings — a weekly occurrence in previous administrations — in May 2018, nearly seven months before Mattis resigned.

Members of Mattis’s staff, including Snodgrass, also became casualties of his souring relationship with the president. Snodgrass had uprooted his young family and sidetracked his career as a naval aviator to work for Mattis, but he was sidelined after his decision to retire from the Navy. Mattis, who never married, had an “uncompromising view on military service,” Snodgrass writes; to him, service came before everything else. Snodgrass ultimately resigned after Kevin Sweeney, Mattis’s chief of staff, blocked a job offer he received from another Pentagon office.

Snodgrass’s on-the-record, first-person account vindicates reporting about Mattis’s waning influence. Starting in the summer of 2018, the defense secretary was indeed iced out: His personal interactions with the president dropped off, and he was blindsided by major announcements like the cancellation of military exercises with South Korea and the creation of a Space Force.

It’s telling that the Pentagon delayed the publication of this book by asking for extensive last-minute redactions, prompting Snodgrass to sue the department this summer. His lawyers allege that defense officials were acting out of loyalty to Mattis, who has worked hard to avoid any public conflict with Trump. Longtime officials pushed back on that narrative, telling me it is normal for the Pentagon to protect certain privileged, though not classified, conversations. The Pentagon ultimately backed down, approving the manuscript with just minor redactions in September.

The result is a nuanced, not always flattering account of Mattis’s time as defense secretary, from the point of view of someone who was in his inner circle. In one of the most prophetic episodes — a briefing at the Pentagon in July 2017 after a catastrophic trip to NATO when the president refused to reaffirm the mutual defense agreement in Article 5 of the group’s founding treaty — Mattis hopes to explain to Trump the value of alliances. But Trump repeatedly interrupts the presentation, exclaiming, “Our trade agreements are criminal!,” offering non sequiturs that reflect his latest obsessions (“The USS Ford [the Navy’s newest aircraft carrier] is completely out of control with cost overruns!”) and expressing his desire for a “Victory Day” military parade.

Most ominously, the president proposes a violent way of dealing with Iran’s harassing of U.S. warships in the Persian Gulf: “If surrounded by Iran again, the captain oughta blow them out of the water!” he says. The irony was not lost on me about a year later when Trump called off a retaliatory missile strike after Iran shot down an expensive U.S. drone.

The anecdote could be a metaphor for Mattis’s tenure as defense secretary. Over the course of the meeting, Snodgrass sees how his boss begins to shut down, “sitting back in his chair with a distant, defeated look on his face.” Mattis took the job convinced that he could make a difference, armed with like-minded allies such as then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and then-national security adviser H.R. McMaster, all intent on educating the president. But Mattis’s early attempts to mold Trump’s worldview fell on deaf ears, and his influence faded. The defense secretary became increasingly cut off from the White House, particularly after the departures of Tillerson and McMaster and the arrival of a new set of advisers.

In another revealing anecdote that serves as a bookend, Mattis hosts the new leadership team at the Pentagon on May 11, 2018. Snodgrass describes watching as Mattis gradually loses control of the room. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and then-national security adviser John Bolton continually interrupt the defense secretary mid-sentence. “I fully expected Mattis to say something about it or to reassert himself, but he never did,” Snodgrass writes. As the meeting begins to peter out, Mattis thanks everyone for coming, gathers his things and walks out of the room. But when it becomes clear that Pompeo, Bolton and the other attendants have remained behind to continue their conversations, Mattis returns to hover awkwardly in the doorway.

“After another minute, Mattis slowly turned and walked back out again. Alone.”

Inside Trump's Pentagon With Secretary Mattis

By Guy M. Snodgrass

Sentinel. 335 pp. $27